Chambers at Large: Learning Mandarin, Silk Making & How to Make the Perfect Cuppa


Education is highly valued in China and highly priced too. The bottom line is that Chinese people are encouraged to be very competitive as, from a young age, lists of students’ names are put on the wall after tests and the lower students’ parents are brought into the school to discuss improvement. The educational system is geared to excessive study and some secondary school students are expected to do 15 hours a day. A few of my ex-students could barely do 15 hours a week!


A plea to everyone visiting the Great Wall of China

The learning of English is paramount and all road signs in the areas I visited are written in Mandarin and English, although it seems many people over the age of twenty-five do not speak it. One guide explained his two-and-a-half-year-old daughter was already learning English, although he didn’t start to learn it until he was in secondary school (and he was very fluent. I was informed the cost of lessons depended on whom was teaching it. The British could charge the most, then the Americans, then the Filipinos. One English tutor was charging £30 for 20 minutes. I told the guide I’d do him a deal and teach his daughter for half price.

“Yes, only problem. You will probably learn more Shanghai Dialect than my daughter learn English,’ he laughed.


Not all signs are in English, but then they don't really need to be!

Mandarin is not an easy language to learn because it is tonal. For example, the simple word ‘Me’ can be said four ways and mean four different things. When it was demonstrated my tone-deaf ears didn’t find it easy differentiating the sounds, but did notice the difference in the movement of the lips.

To say ‘very’ was easy. ‘Ding’ and it can be repeated, depending on how impressed one is with the adjective. Ding ding ding good, ding ding ding easy.

To say, thank you is a nightmare. It is written in English as ‘Xie Xie’ and I had to learn that X was a ‘sh’ or ‘ch’ sound. To pronounce thank you properly (She/She) one has to widen one’s mouth into a smile.

It now makes sense as to why Mandarin sounds as if the people are always smiling and trilling like birds. At the airport when announcements were made, I felt like rapping to them or singing along in cooing tones.


Gentleman Demonstrating the Art of Calligraphy on the Pavement at the Summer Palace

I was also given a calligraphy lesson and told calligraphy is considered an art form, few people fully mastering it and like any artist at work it is fascinating to watch. The four treasures of fine writing are: the brush, the paper, the inkstone and the inkstick and have been for hundreds of years.

(You will have to forgive me for using a standard querty keyboard to demonstrate the next paragraph of this blog!)

There are 201 standard “letters” on which words are based and I was shown the standard sign for water, which is similar to: /= The basic sign, or what I would call symbol, is extended to signify other related objects. Thus /=- means stream, /=’ means lake, and /= with a small bottle beside it means beer!

It’s really quite logical, but there are over 48,000 characters extending from the initial 201.

I was told scrolls of fine calligraphy cost thousands of pounds, but for 1000 yuan I bought a small scroll on which is written my name, the date and my wish: Long Life, Health and Happiness. The word ‘happiness’ is based on the sign for person, then adding mouth and food. I wanted to add intelligence, but there wasn’t room and I was curtly told the art of calligraphy itself was a symbol of intelligence!

It’s a ding ding interesting concept, almost like a cryptogram. I only hope, thinking back to what was written on the waitress’s T-shirt, I’m wondering if my purchase may say, “Fuck Off Arseholes”, but I refuse to be so cynical and it has been framed and is now hanging on my wall.


Signs written in Mandarin, English and French

The Chinese government it seems insists all visitors are to be taken to a silk factory in Shanghai therefore I was taken to one on the way to the museum. Here I was shown the silk worms, which gorge on mulberry leaves and look more like white caterpillars than earthworms.


Silkworms on Mulberry Leaves

To make silk the cocoons of these insects are soaked in hot water to loosen them and the hard seed like larva inside is discarded and used to make cosmetic creams, as it is high in protein. One cocoon makes over one kilometre of thread, however the single threads are easily broken, therefore seven threads are entwined and this is used in the making of quilts. We were invited to help in the making of the quilts and indeed they are beautifully soft, but highly impractical. I’ll stick to my Egyptian cotton, as I’d be afraid my nails would catch on a silk thread and that would be the ruination of a very expensive item of bed linen.


Tea was served in a small cup, over which is placed a cover to keep it warm.

The tea drinking ceremony, which I attended was a ding ding ding ding ding (times 10000) big waste of time and a selling ploy for tourists to buy extortionately priced tea. If you wish to see how teapots are revered then I suggest you watch the episode of Sherlockentitled The Blind Banker, where it is demonstrated with flair and in a few moments rather than the half hour it took to show us.

A fellow traveller told me that the best way to drink a cup of tea is out of a red cup, having left the teabag in for five minutes. I was surprised one would use a teabag and wondered if the whole cup had to be red. I didn’t pursue the matter. I’m not a ding ding huge fan of tea, red cup or otherwise!

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